Clarifying Water’s Murky Fate

Symposium draws experts to discuss the state of our water
Bruce E. Rittman is exploring new ways to clean up pollution, treat water, and wastewater, and improve human health. Photo by Tony RinaldoBruce E. Rittman is exploring new ways to clean up pollution, treat water, and wastewater, and improve human health. Photo by Tony Rinaldo
By Steve Nadis

It’s called—with good reason—the most precious substance on earth. We’re predominately made up of water, more than 70 percent of our planet’s surface is covered with it, and everything we eat depends on it. Life as we know it would not exist but for the extraordinarily special molecule composed of two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen.

Yet this priceless commodity has forever been taken for granted, squandered, overused, and abused. We clearly need to do a better job of understanding and protecting our water resource while we still have the chance. Indeed, that was the main topic of conversation last October at the Radcliffe Institute’s Annual Science Symposium, “Cloudy with a Chance of Solutions: The Future of Water.”

In her introductory remarks to the crowd of some 350 people, Radcliffe Dean Lizabeth Cohen said she couldn’t think of a better subject than water to satisfy the Institute’s criteria for a theme that would benefit from a multidisciplinary approach. Challenges around the world include pollutants, deadly bacteria, overwhelmed governments, and fractious political disputes. “Fortunately,” she added, “we don’t have to look too far to find great minds focused on these problems.”

To show how timely the symposium’s topic was, Joan Ruderman, Radcliffe’s former senior science advisor, cited numerous headlines from recent newspapers, including one about plans for using desalinated seawater in San Diego. Menachem Elimelech of Yale followed on with that general topic, claiming that, in principle, seawater desalination could furnish practically an unlimited supply of water. The main drawback is that it takes three to four times as much energy to desalinate seawater as to treat water coming from, say, the Charles River. The key question, he said, is whether the energy efficiency of desalination can be improved enough to make this approach sustainable. Elimelech led the audience through a technical review of reverse osmosis and other water purification methods before concluding that desalination should be considered “a last resort.” Yet in some countries, such as in the Middle East, it may be the only way of adding to tightly constrained water supplies.

Bruce E. Rittman of Arizona State University focused on energy conversion techniques modeled after nature, which use water frugally. Instead of growing “energy crops” like corn to produce biofuels—a dubious strategy given that agriculture already accounts for 70 percent of the world’s water consumption—Rittman proposed, we should employ photosynthetic bacteria, housed in slurries within transparent “photobioreactors,” to convert the sun’s energy into fuels. His approach, in contrast to fossil fuel combustion, emits no net carbon dioxide. Water recirculates within a “closed-loop system,” keeping consumption down. “In this way,” Rittman said, “we let water work for us rather than against us.”

Both Charles Tyler of the University of Exeter and Washington State University geneticist Patricia Hunt warned of the hazards posed by endocrine-disrupting chemicals in our waterways and drinking supplies. Tyler discussed his 20-year investigation of hormonally active pollutants that interfere with the reproductive capacity of fish, causing the “feminization” of the male wild roach observed in numerous English rivers and streams. Hunt has studied the increased incidence of chromosomal abnormalities—in animal test subjects and presumably in humans—caused by the chemical, bisphenol A (BPA). This organic compound is of particular concern, because it can leach from plastic water bottles and from the PVC pipes that bring water into many homes.

University of Houston historian Martin V. Melosi offered a broader perspective, disputing the contention that “water is the new oil.” Unlike fossil fuels, “water is not something we can substitute for,” Melosi said. “As a resource it stands alone.” In the past century, he said, water use has been growing twice as fast as population—a consumption rate that obviously cannot be supported far into the future.

As for rectifying this situation, University of Maryland engineer Gerald E. Galloway was hardly encouraging. Although we tend to think in increments of three to five years, he said, “we should be thinking 30 to 50 years ahead.” He cited a dismal history, stretching back to the 1960s, of repeated failure by the government to implement sensible water policies.

Given the task of summarizing, Peter P. Rodgers, a Harvard professor and the author of Running Out of Water, was not optimistic. He noted that US drinking water is currently regulated for 86 contaminants, but more than 100 other contaminants, including endocrine disrupters, should be added to that list—which, alarmingly, keeps growing. Our current wastewater treatment plants, however, are not equipped to remove those additional contaminants, posing a huge problem. The only things Rodgers could cheer about were the insights and cogent analyses provided by the speakers who preceded him at the symposium.


Sandra Steingraber. Photo by Tony RinaldoSandra Steingraber. Photo by Tony RinaldoScientists ought to engage in “the big issues of their time,” urges Sandra Steingraber, a biologist based at Ithaca College. That’s why she’s leading the fight against “fracking,” which she says poses “irremediable” threats to our drinking water. Short for hydraulic fracturing, fracking offers a way of releasing natural gas and other products from underground shale deposits. Steingraber decries this invasive process, which vents appreciable quantities of toxic gases into the atmosphere while taking large amounts of freshwater out of the hydrological cycle and depositing it in rocks below the water table.

Steingraber described the implications of this unprecedented, wholesale water removal to the Radcliffe crowd while reading a passage from her book, Raising Elijah: “What happens to water during fracking is different from what happens to water when you leave the tap running while brushing your teeth. When a single well is fracked, several million gallons of freshwater are removed from lakes, streams, aquifers, and entombed in deep geological strata. Once there it is removed from the water cycle permanently, as in forever. . . . It will no longer ascend into clouds, freeze into snowflakes, melt into rivulets, cascade over rocks, turn with the tides, soak into soil, rise through roots, or flow from your tap. It will not become blood, tears, sweat, urine, milk, sap, nectar, yolk, honey, or the juice of a fruit. . . . It’s gone. Not that you’d want it to come back. It’s poison now.”

Steve Nadis is a freelance writer.

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